Essex teacher to get presidential award

October 28, 1994|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,Sun Staff Writer

When the news came that she'd be going to the White House to pick up a Presidential Award for Excellence in Science Teaching, Sister Ellen Eugene Callaghan was away with her students on a Chesapeake Bay beach cleanup.

Her principal and colleagues at Our Lady of Mount Carmel High School in Essex say that is typical of Sister Ellen, who would rather her students learn biology by mucking around in a marsh than by listening to a lecture.

The 54-year-old Franciscan nun is the first Catholic school teacher to win the prestigious award in the 11 years it has been given in Maryland. The award carries the trip to meet the president and other state winners, but, more important, a $7,500 National Science Foundation grant to the 187-student Mount Carmel.

It isn't the first award Sister Ellen has won for Mount Carmel. Two years ago, she won a national competition that brought $10,000 from Time magazine. "She's a one-woman endowment committee," said Kathleen Sipes, principal at Mount Carmel, which has a tuition of $3,700.

"The public doesn't know a lot about Sister Ellen," said Andrea R. Bowden, supervisor of science and health in Baltimore public schools who won the presidential award 11 years ago, "but people in education surely do, and so do her students. What distinguishes her is that she performs wonders with limited resources, and she makes sure those resources get to her students."

Sister Ellen, who has been teaching 23 years, the past 13 at Mount Carmel, organized an elective course for seniors on the Chesapeake Bay. The seven students fit nicely in two cars, and on any day they might be working on a shoreline reclamation project at nearby Cox Point or observing experiments in rockfish farming at the University of Maryland's Crane Aquaculture Facility.

"Our school has water on three sides, so it's only natural that my biology teaching would be oriented to the bay," said Sister Ellen.

Sister Ellen took a group of her students on a Chesapeake canoe trip not long ago. The next day, "while they were still excited

about it," she said, she helped them organize the "Society for a Cleaner Bay," an environmental activist group.

Mount Carmel's Spanish teacher, Teri Wilkins, was a student of Sister Ellen's 20 years ago at Catholic High School in East Baltimore. "She's one of the reasons I became a teacher," Ms. Wilkins said. "She was very patient. She never made us feel like we were stupid for making a mistake. I remember that she brought in crackers to show us how the enzymes in saliva work."

Sister Ellen, who lives in the Mount Carmel convent, said science is changing so rapidly that teachers have to "keep in constant touch with the specialists. Kids need to know the basic concepts of science, so there has to be lots of old-fashioned teaching, but they also need to know how the concepts they've learned are applicable in research labs and in industry. They need to touch things and feel things to understand how they work."

"I'm going to the White House!" Sister Ellen exclaimed. "It'll be the thrill of a lifetime, but I always have to remember what someone said about fame. It's like a bee. It buzzes to let you know it's around. It stings you, and then it's gone."

The award will be presented in March.

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